Friday, 02 February 2018

Together in joyful song

Written by David Busch

Worship is universal, but songwriting isn’t – each gathered community needs songs that derive from, and speak to, its context. And we need to learn to sing hope amid the hard stuff of life.

With those words, Dr Tanya Riches – composer, justice advocate, cross-cultural missiologist, researcher and Hillsong scholar – urged Uniting Church songwriters to give an authentic voice to the laments and hopes of people and places across Australia.

The 25 composers from four states attending SongWrite 2018 heard Tanya’s challenge, and so unfolded another weekend of creativity, collaboration, and encouragement – the third national SongWrite conference sponsored by the Assembly’s Worship Working Group since 2013.

Indooroopilly Uniting Church in Brisbane hosted the conference over the Australia Day long weekend. For half of the attendees, this was their first SongWrite conference, and several of those had never written a worship song.

But by the Sunday morning, three songs composed over the weekend were ready to be shared in a special SongWrite service with the Indooroopilly Congregation, in addition to several others that SongWrite participants had written earlier.

A focus for musical inspiration was the theme for the 15th Assembly meeting this July in Melbourne: Abundant Grace, Liberating Hope.

UCA President-elect Dr Deidre Palmer had outlined that theme in a letter to participants a few weeks prior to SongWrite, and she attended the conference to speak further about the theme and share the experience of music taking shape around that focus.

Dr Tanya Riches brought deep insight and broad horizons to her three keynote presentations, with her academic background and extensive experience in ethnomusicology, theological anthropology, disability studies, and intersections between Pentecostal Christianity and The Dreaming of Australia’s First Peoples, as well as her success as a composer.

Tanya has come a long way since writing her first song, “Jesus, what a beautiful name” in 1995, as a 15-year-old facing a difficult home life. That song leapt to the top of Christian music charts across the world and helped to regalvanise Hillsong’s music ministry after the departure of Geoff Bullock.

“I didn’t create that song,” Tanya told SongWrite. “I was a steward of a song which just emerged from within me. I couldn’t really understand the full meaning of what I was writing.

“To say that I write the song is a betrayal of the work of God embedded in the act of creating – no song I’ve ever written is mine.

“The journey of the songwriter is to steward the songs within you and within others. To give voice to your pain and passion, to connect that with the pain and passion of others, and find a language and a music that creates a community of worship of God who breaks into our lives and our world.”

Tanya said the most pressing need for worship songwriters today was to find ways to express grief and lament as entry points into empathy and humility before God and each other – enabling people to sing their questions and acknowledge the pain we each carry in our lives as we sit in church each week.

“We go through the motions at church but we know that true community is better than this. People resonate with honesty. Our songs should make the pain normative, and bring us to a turning point with the psalmists who, in the midst of anguish and lament, can declare, ‘But God …’

“There is a beautiful energy in a community singing their stories.”

Other parts of the SongWrite 2018 program included six composers sharing their approach to song-writing – Dave Andrews, David MacGregor, Allan Hoare, Craig Mitchell, Alison Campbell Rate and Eric Woodrow; a very entertaining Saturday night cabaret ‘open mic’ for song sharing; and a workshop, open to the wider church, by Rev. Dr Amelia Koh-Butler on how to teach new worship songs to a congregation.

SongWrite is held about every two years.